Initial NCS Thoughts: Squirrels, Animals, and the Flood

4818604129_982f71bd3eItaly: why no squirrels in Italy? My wife claims she saw a squirrel; I saw none. The Siena natural history museum tells me they are general throughout Italy, barring Sardinia and Sicily, but they must be fibbing, or describing what now has only a historical reality, or perhaps they have no idea how dense a population of squirrels must be to qualify as “common.” I welcome the physici of Siena to visit my Brooklyn backyard.

I have convinced myself of two things: that the Italian squirrel can be found only in Genoa, and that Catherine of Siena must somehow be responsible. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland; Italy lacks flying pigs because of Paulinus of Nola; but by the time Catherine of Siena arrived, there was little left to expel but squirrels. This was no small miracle. Those who keep a garden know the annoyance of sciurus vulgaris or carolinensis. They would be wise to offer Catherine a prayer of thanks lest they also be driven from their home to satisfy the convenience of others. Ireland, beware, for one day the snakes will find their own saint!

I attended all but one of the Animals sessions at NCS: I was grumpy not to be cited once, but found the lack of citation a nice, humbling counterweight to claims of blog triumphalism; I was happy to hear Jeffrey cited so many times; and annoyed, deeply, that Susan Crane, who has written and continues to write so perceptively on animals, was cited barely at all. The field feels itself to be barely finding its feet (or hooves), but the field should recognize that much has happened in medieval animal studies since Salisbury and Yamamoto!

I want to recall here, briefly, a very fine paper I saw at the first Animals session: in “Uxor Noe and Animal Inventory,” Sarah Elliott Novacich, a graduate student in English at Yale, discussed the ark as archive (through, in part, the mnemotechnics and glossing in Hugh of St Victor’s writing on the ark), the language of penning and herding for bringing Mrs Noah (see here for a brief discussion of some of her 103 names) and how Mrs Noah refuses to be caught up in this memory practice. If I remember this argument aright.

As often happens with good papers, my mind was led to wonder again at a text I thought I knew well, in this case, one I’ve known since I was knee-high to a flood, Genesis 6, 7, and 8. Mrs Noah’s refusal to join the party might be read as resistance to what Noah wants, and by extension to what God wants, and by further extension to what men or the dominant in general want. She is a site of resistance.

But the Genesis account is muddled, and not only because it’s obviously a poorly edited amalgamation of two separate accounts (does Noah bring 7 pairs of clean and 2 pairs of unclean animals on board; or just 2 pairs of everything? Cf. Genesis 7:2-3 to Genesis 7:8-9). It’s muddled because God’s desires themselves are muddled. Being sophisticates, we know God is not the Big Other, the one supposed to know, the one out there who’s impossibly whole; we know that such unity, when sought, will never arrive, and that it never can have existed. We know God is a split subject too.

But we don’t expect to find such knowledge so obviously given in an ancient text without being made available through some manner of paranoid extraction. But it is obvious here. In the Noah story, we see that God at once wants to destroy the world and to preserve it, to start again and to keep something afloat. As so often in Genesis, He regrets almost as soon as he decides to act (Genesis 7:6-8). The Mrs Noah of the Middle English drama, far from being (only) a site of resistance, is a further witness to God’s split desires, to his inability to act simply, to his ever being able to do just one thing. She is indeed outside the archive, then, attesting to the multiplicity even in this most monolithic of Others.

Thanks Sarah for your excellent paper!